Thursday, February 22, 2018

Halacha ,the 2nd Amendment .and the restriction of access ..

Image result for Gun Control in Halachah
Gun Control in Halachah

If you drive around different parts of the US long enough, you are likely to encounter two bumper stickers asserting two contradictory ideas. One states, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The other states, “More guns, more death.” Those who support stricter gun control measures believe that gun control reduces violent crime by taking guns away from criminals. Those who are opposed to stricter gun control measures believe that gun control increases crime by disarming the “good guys” who deter criminals from committing violent crimes. Each side of the debate has statistics to support its side of the argument. There are studies that “prove” that areas with looser gun restrictions have less crime.1 There are also studies that “prove” that areas with greater availability of guns have a higher rate of violent crimes.2

As intellectually honest people, we strive to gather the facts before making decisions about controversial topics. Yet the conflicting studies in the area of gun control should not deter us. One possible resolution to this conflict is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the way people behave with guns. Sometimes guns will be used to commit violent crimes and sometimes they will be used to protect people. How then, does one come to a decision? In Talmudic times, the rabbis struggled with similar issues. Perhaps we can glean some lessons about gun control from the Talmud and its commentaries.

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 15b-16a) has a lengthy discussion about laws relating to selling weapons and their accessories. The discussion involves a number of points. 1) The Gemara quotes a beraita that one may not sell weapons or their accessories (holsters, et cetera) to a non-Jew or a kuti. (A kuti, for these purposes, represents anyone who we suspect may sell the weapons to non-Jews.) One may not sharpen non-Jews’ weapons nor sell them handcuffs or similar tools. The Gemara explains that the reason for the prohibition is because non-Jews are prone to use these weapons or tools for murder, an observation that was true at the time. 2) The Gemara further states that just as it is prohibited to sell weapons to a non-Jew, it is also prohibited to sell them to a Jewish bandit. The Gemara adds that this certainly applies to a bandit who might murder, but it also applies to a mashmuta (Jewish bandit who has no history of violence). 3) The Gemara then quotes a dispute about whether one may sell shields to non-Jews. The dispute centers around one question: will the shields be used as weapons to attack others or for self-defense? 4) The Gemara further states that one may not sell iron to non-Jews because they might use it to make weapons. The Gemara notes that while one can convert any tool into a weapon, this rule relates to a type of iron primarily used for weaponry. 5) The Gemara goes on to justify selling iron to the Persians because they protected the Jews at the time. The Gemara seems to be permitting the sale of a specific type of iron. Yet many Rishonim extend the prohibition to ban the selling of all types of weaponry to non-Jews.

What is the nature of the prohibition against selling weapons? Is it based on public policy considerations (i.e., the safety of the public) or is it based on pre-established halachic principles? This seems to be the subject of a dispute among the Rishonim. Rabbi Yosef ibn Chabib, Nimukei Yosef (Avodah Zarah 16a), writes that the prohibition is based on a concern that it will lead to murder. Ritva (Avodah Zarah 16a) writes explicitly that it is based on the concept of lifnei iver, the prohibition against enabling someone else to commit a transgression. By providing weapons to someone who might use them for crime, one is enabling the purchaser to violate a transgression. Rambam codifies these laws in Hilchot Avodat Kochavim as well as in Hilchot Rotzei’ach. In Hilchot Avodat Kochavim, Rambam emphasizes that we don’t provide people with tools that can harm society, while he downplays lifnei iver. In Hilchot Rotzei’ach, Rambam connects these laws with the concept of lifnei iver. Thus, for Rambam both the societal concerns and the issur of lifnei iver play a role in the prohibition against selling weapons.

If the basis for prohibiting the sale of weapons is solely the concept of lifnei iver, then perhaps it is permissible to sell weapons to someone who has another means of acquiring them.3 If the prohibition is based on the harm weapons do to society, then the prohibition would still apply even if the purchaser has other means of acquiring the weapons.

The most significant practical difference between these approaches emerges in explaining why the Gemara permits selling weapons to the Persians. According toNimukei Yosef (op. cit.), selling weapons to those who protect us will certainly (vaday)provide an added measure of security, while the concern that they might use the weapons for murder is only speculative (safek). Rabbeinu Nissim (Avodah Zarah 5a) follows a similar approach and writes that one must analyze whether selling the weapons will prove to be more protective or more harmful. In Talmudic times, selling weapons to the Persians provided greater security overall.

Applying Nimukei Yosef’s analysis to modern times would require knowledge of whether less restrictive gun control laws are inherently protective or not. As we noted earlier, there is no clear consensus on whether this is true or not. Do gun control laws contribute to public safety (pikuach nefesh d’rabim) or detract from it? Ritva (op. cit.) writes that the Gemara permits selling weapons to the Persians because there is nolifnei iver in this situation. Perhaps what he means is that lifnei iver only applies when one knows that the weapon is going to be used for harm. If one sells to people who are trying to protect themselves or who serve to protect, one can assume that the weapon will be used for good, similar to the permissibility of selling ordinary tools to someone. We are not concerned that they may be converted into a weapon. Advocates for looser gun control restrictions might use this comment to support their argument and claim thatlifnei iver doesn’t apply because normally guns are sold for protective or neutral purposes.

Opponents might counter that argument and claim that this is only true if we properly evaluate the purchase and perform a proper background check on the purchaser. Rambam, both in Hilchot Avodat Kochavim and in Hilchot Rotzeiach, seems to limit the permissibility of selling weapons to (Persian) military and law enforcement personnel. Rambam seems to not permit selling weapons to civilians even if their stated goal is to protect themselves or to provide protection to society.

Some advocates for stricter gun control laws are asking for enhanced criminal background checks as well as psychological evaluations of those purchasing weapons. Interestingly, support for this can be found in a Talmudic discussion. As noted earlier, the Talmud prohibits selling a weapon to a mashmuta—a Jewish bandit who has no history of violence but may use the weapon to escape capture. Rashi (Avodah Zarah 15b, s.v.L’Olam) notes that even if one is certain that the bandit won’t use the weapon to kill someone, he may use it to threaten someone and commit a crime (steal, et cetera). Thus, selling weapons to a bandit could make one guilty as an accessory to a crime. Rabbeinu Nissim (Avodah Zarah 5a), however, has a different explanation. He suggests that even if the bandit does not have a violent past, he will eventually be in a situation where he will use the weapon to avoid being captured. According to Rabbeinu Nissim, we are not only prohibited from selling weapons to people who are actually prone to commit murder, we may not sell weapons to those who have a greater than average propensity to use the weapon in a destructive manner. As such, perhaps one should not sell a weapon to someone who has a criminal past or a psychological proclivity towards violence.4

The entire Talmudic discussion takes place against the backdrop of a barbaric society. In Talmudic times, Jews lived in a society where Jewish blood was routinely spilled in vain and there was good reason to suspect that any non-Jew might commit an act of violence against a Jew. There are a number of other laws in the Talmud that are based the same premise. Rabbi Yair Bachrach (Chavot Yair no. 66) and Rabbi Avraham Danzig (Chayei Adam 12:42) write that nowadays, we live in civilized societies and we don’t have to suspect that any non-Jew will attempt to murder us.5

Does this mean that in today’s times, we can ignore the entire Talmudic discussion? If we apply Rabbeinu Nissim’s argument here, we can suggest that even though we need not be suspicious of the average citizen, we have the right to suspect that there are people in the general population who should not own guns and as such, we can take protective measures to ensure that guns don’t come into their hands.

As a concluding point, there is an important distinction between Jewish law and US law with regard to gun ownership. Whereas US law—as per District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)—guarantees each individual a right to bear arms, Jewish law does not. Jewish law does not guarantee anyone’s right to bear arms and such a right plays no role in the Talmudic discussion. Jewish law is primarily interested in preserving society and ensuring that public policy keeps people safe. US lawmakers are also interested in protecting its citizens, but must do so within the confines of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.6

At the same time, Jewish law does value the importance of providing weapons to those who serve to protect us and by extension, those who are interested in protecting themselves, whether it was the Persians of Talmudic times or the security officers of today’s times, despite the possibility that those very weapons may be used to harm us. Jewish law recognizes that weapons control is complex and that a key determinant in whether to provide weapons to someone is whether doing so is more protective than it is dangerous. In Jewish law, knowledge is our friend and the more we know about the effects of gun control laws on public safety and about the specific individuals who are interested in purchasing guns, the better equipped we are to address this complexity.

1. See Carlisle E. Moody and Thomas B. Marvell, “The Debate on Right-to-Carry Concealed Weapons Laws,” Working Papers 71 (2008), Department of Economics, College of William and Mary, available at

2. See Lisa M. Hepburn and David Hemenway, “Firearm Availability and Homicide: A Review of the Literature,” Aggression and Violent Behavior (2004) 9: 417-440, abstract available at

3. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 6b) states that the Biblical prohibition of lifnei iver is only violated if one provides the prohibited item and the recipient has no other reasonable means of attaining the item. If he has other means of attaining the item, there is no Biblical violation of lifnei iver. Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Da’at U’Machshavah 9:8) notes that this rule may not apply in the case of selling weapons. Even if the rabbis based the prohibition against selling weapons on lifnei iver, the parameters of the rule may not follow the same exact parameters as lifnei iver.

4. Even according to Rabbeinu Nissim’s interpretation, the prohibition only applies to selling to a known bandit. Requiring a criminal background check would mean checking every individual to make sure that a gun isn’t sold to the few people who are criminals. Nevertheless, when the likelihood of violating a prohibition is small but significant (miut hamatzui), Jewish law generally requires one to investigate the matter if the facts can be determined with relative ease (see Tosafot, Avodah Zarah 40b, s.v. Kol based on the Gemara, Yevamot 121a, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 1:1 and Beiur HaGra ad loc.). When the matter can potentially lead to a life-threatening situation, the threshold for statistically significant risk is even lower. Given that performing criminal background checks can be done with relative ease, one should screen all customers to ensure that they aren’t established criminals.

5. The comments of Rabbi Bachrach and Rabbi Danzig were not said with regard to the prohibition against selling weapons to non-Jews.

6. It is also noteworthy that the debate about gun control in the US focuses on possession rather than sale. If an individual purchases a gun illegally or produces it on his own, he is still in violation of the law. While the Talmudic discussion addresses the provider and not the purchaser, the values that can be extrapolated from the discussion provide guidance as to who should own a gun.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Palestinian Refugees Statistics : Facts, Figures and Significance :

The Palestinian refugee issue has been seen for some seventy years as a principal obstacle to a resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. However, the expanding numbers of refugees from the Middle East and Africa today challenge the uniqueness of the Palestinian situation. In fact, the issue of Palestinian refugees is perceived more as the reflection of an ongoing lapse by Arab countries, Israel, and the international community, which have been unable to separate the solution to this problem from the greater political arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians. Despite the ongoing distress of the refugees, the subject is still seen as the Palestinians’ main bargaining chip in peace negotiations with Israel. However, the value of this historical card appears to be ebbing with the growing numbers of refugees worldwide and the absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After seven decades and many changes in the Middle East, perhaps this complex issue should be disconnected from the greater political settlement.

The decision by US President Donald Trump to freeze a third of the United States' contribution to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, has brought renewed attention to an organization whose very existence and activity arouses harsh criticism in Israel. UNRWA was established in 1949 after the War of Independence to deal solely with Palestinian refugees. As with the question of Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugee issue has been seen for some seventy years as a principal obstacle to a resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. For the Palestinians who have been raised on the Nakba heritage, any compromise on this issue is an attack on Palestinian national identity.

The number of individuals forced to leave their homes during the War of Independence is estimated at 720,000. Most of them settled in refugee camps in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. According to UNRWA, all the descendants of Palestinian refugees are considered refugees, and therefore today they number over five and a half million. Citizenship of another country, for example, Jordan, does not cancel their refugee status. In other words, only the return of the refugees and their descendants to their homes can cancel this status.

For Israeli governments, the Palestinian demand for the "right of return" of refugees was and remains a red line. This position is supported by an absolute majority of Israeli citizens from all parts of the political spectrum, because the return of such large numbers of Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel would have far reaching consequences for the character of the state. However, all the attempts by the State of Israel over the years to change UNRWA’s definition of refugees have failed. Israel’s efforts to change UNRWA’s status as an independent entity and subject it to the UNHCR, which handles all other refugees worldwide, has failed as well. This is largely because the Arab countries believe that such a change would make it impossible to pass on refugee status to the descendants of Palestinian refugees and thus weaken the Palestinian position in negotiations.

The social and political shockwaves in the Middle East since 2011 make it imperative to reexamine the refugee issue. First, the expanding numbers of refugees from the Middle East and Africa challenge the uniqueness of the Palestinian situation. Today there are some 60 million displaced people, including 17 million refugees, half of them under the age of 18. These refugees are the responsibility of the UNHCR (High Commissioner for Refugees), and some make their way to Europe. Their movement has enormous economic, security, political, and national consequences for most of the countries of the continent.

This is the reason why the issue of Palestinian refugees is perceived more as the reflection of an ongoing lapse by Arab countries, Israel, and the international community, which have been unable to separate the solution to this problem from the greater political arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians. Despite the ongoing distress of the refugees, the subject is still seen as the Palestinians’ main bargaining chip in peace negotiations with Israel. However, the value of this historical card appears to be ebbing with the growing numbers of refugees worldwide and the absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In contrast to figures on UNRWA’s official site, which cite 526,700 registered refugees in Lebanon, newly published figures based on a Lebanese census conducted in cooperation with the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimate their number at 175,000. This figure is interesting in itself, because of the familiar tendency of Palestinian elements to be reluctant to reduce the number of refugees. More specifically, the situation of the refugees in Lebanon has always been considered worse than in other countries, due to the strong restrictions there against them. Therefore, it is generally accepted that they be dealt with first in any settlement. Even when ideas were proposed for a symbolic return of refugees to Israel in the framework of family reunification, refugees from Lebanon were spoken of first. The gap in the figures strengthens the assumption that the numbers on the UNRWA site do not reflect reality – not only in Lebanon, but also in other countries. This assumption undermines the reliability of this organization, which has always been seen in Israel as a hostile entity at the forefront of the struggle to perpetuate the refugee issue and the demand for the "right of return."

Moreover, due to the ongoing war in Syria, refugees from Lebanon and Syria have migrated to other countries. The demographic changes in Lebanon, particularly the dramatic decline in the proportion of Palestinian refugees, mean a reduced threat to a breach of the delicate balance between different population groups. This could enable the Lebanese government to introduce a more lenient policy regarding refugee rights, which could perhaps reduce the pressure to promote a special arrangement for refugees there. Although there are no new independent figures about the number of Palestinian refugees in Syria, their numbers have likely dropped significantly, and the problem of Palestinian refugees in Syria is no longer the focus of the refugee agenda in that country.

With the refugee issue ongoing for so long, changes have occurred in their integration into their "host" countries. Contrary to widespread opinion, only 45 percent of the refugees in Lebanon live in camps. Fifty-seven percent of the refugees in the Shatila camp are from Syria, and only about 30 percent are Palestinians. Similarly, in Jordan, which granted citizenship to most of the Palestinian refugees, many live in "regular" residential areas rather than camps.

It is hard to preserve refugee status forever, and in view of social, political, and economic processes, the integration of Palestinian refugees into the economy and society of host countries is inevitable. This does not mean that the subject of refugees should not be settled. However, after seven decades and many changes in the Middle East, perhaps this complex issue should be disconnected from the greater political settlement. The problem of the refugees is a national Palestinian problem, but also a personal problem for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and failure to resolve the subject does not make them more moderate.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Israeli-Syrian-Iranian Confrontation and Kremlin's Reaction

Image result for February 11, 2018, Israel conducted multiple airstrikes on Syrian-Iranian targets
On February 11, 2018, Israel conducted multiple airstrikes on Syrian-Iranian targets in Syria in response to the downing of an Israeli F-16 in Israeli territory following infiltration by an Iranian drone. Moscow’s mild reaction to these events reflects its desire to maintain cooperation with both Tehran and Jerusalem.

Russian politicians have been surprisingly mute on the Israeli airstrikes in Syria that took place on February 11. Nothing notable has been said beyond an official statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry urging all sides to show restraint and avoid actions that could lead to further complications.

The quiet reflects the Kremlin’s tough position. Moscow has been cooperating closely with both Israel and Iran of late, hence is in no position to unequivocally take sides. As Irina Zvyagelskaya, member of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, put it, “The situation for Russia is difficult as our country has good relations with Iran and Israel, which share deep differences.”

Other political commentators say that nothing new has in fact occurred, as Israel has always vowed to destroy military buildups near its borders. The action was entirely foreseeable, they argue, in view of Israeli PM Netanyahu’s comments during his visit to Moscow in late January.

At the same time, many Russians are wondering to what extent the Kremlin will allow Israel to continue to carry out preventive strikes on Syrian soil. The incident suggested that an Israeli-Syrian military engagement could evolve into a serious situation that could spin out of Russian control. This is worrisome to the Russians, as they are keen to keep the balance in Syria.

On a broader level, the latest incident shows how ineffective Russian efforts have become to maintain a dominant position on the Syrian battlefield. The Turkish operation in Afrin, in the north of the country, made clear that Moscow is unable to forestall the growth of Ankara’s influence. Iranian proxy forces are now close to the Israeli border, and Russia failed to accomplish anything significant in this respect at the Sochi Conference in late January.

Comments in the Russian media hint that, strategically speaking, Russia does not want Israel – a powerful player – to enter the already overcrowded Syrian battlefield. This is particularly true as Moscow is working right now on solidifying its positions following important military victories. Deep Israeli involvement could unravel Russia’s dominant role in Syria.

At the same time, suggestions in the Russian media over the past few days point to an interesting scenario in which the Israeli involvement in Syria forces Russia to more openly declare a pro-Iranian strategy. Up to this point, Moscow has consistently tried – at least officially – to cooperate with both countries.

Alternatively, some Russian pundits surmise that because Moscow has been concerned that its major ally, Iran, might try to seize the strategic opportunity through its proxies and increase its clout in Syria, the Kremlin might welcome – if not Israel’s total engagement in Syria – at least some actions that limit Tehran’s power.

At a January 30 meeting with Russian President Putin in Moscow, just days before the incident, Netanyahu said, “[t]he most important thing I think is to make sure that we understand each other and that we don’t shoot down each other’s planes.” Indeed, over the past two days, some Russian analysts have raised the idea that the Israeli involvement in the Syrian conflict will be confined solely to maintaining its own security along the borders. Overall, the tone of the Russian media towards Israel’s actions has been neutral, while remaining studiously noncommittal about those of Iran.

Considering Israel’s security imperatives, it is arguable that the Israeli intervention was expected. Tehran is gaining the most from the Syrian chaos. It is likely that Israel will have to respond again, even if the Golan Heights are not directly threatened. As there are no other official statements from Russian officials, nor direct government leaks in leading Russian dailies such as Kommersant, Izvestia and others, Moscow’s position will be important to watch. Like most players in Syria, the Russians would not welcome additional actors in the country. However, the Kremlin will not be able to forestall further possible Israeli involvement in Syria.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

10.2.2017 Saturday Morning Northern Flareup ....Iran playing poker with Israel and Russia

Image result for Israeli F 16 over Syria

The penetration of Israeli air space by an Iranian drone was part of Iran's quest to change the military equation in the region.

As the hours tick by, the view is gaining ground that the today's penetration of Israeli air space by an Iranian drone aircraft was not by chance, and that the Iranians were out to test the strength of an Israeli response to such an incident, and, even more so, the response of Russia.

Israel responded with air strikes into Syria this morning after the Iranian drone was shot down. An Israeli F-16 was hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire and its two crew bailed out over Israeli territory. One of them is seriously injured in hospital. Israel carried out further strikes against Syrian air defenses during the day. IDF sources say that the Iranians have been using the Tiyas Military Airbase, also known as the T-4 Airbase, near the Syrian city of Palmyra, freely.

The testing of Israel's defenses is the reason for the initial denial by official Iran that the UAV had entered Israeli airspace. A spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry said, "The claim that an unmanned aircraft penetrated into Israel is false. Iran's presence in Syria is for advisory purposes, and is with the consent of the Syrian government. The Syrian army and people are fully entitled to defend their homeland."

At the same time, however, a statement from the militant Iranian Revolutionary Guard said, "We have the capability of opening the gates of hell for Israel should we want to." Later, Iran's President Rouhani warned, "If certain countries think that by bombing neighboring countries they can reach a solution, they are making a grave mistake."

But the promised gates of hell did not open, even when Israel attacked Iranian targets on Syrian territory and, according to unverified reports, Iranian military personnel were killed. The lack of response indicates fear of a sharper and more painful Israeli response, since Israel has complete command of the air over all of southern Syria, and also a Russian demand from Teheran to exercise restraint and avoid escalation. The Iranians do not want to lose their bases in Syria, the anchors they have dropped there, whether through Israeli strikes or through a Russian ultimatum to leave the country or at least to avoid confrontation with Israel.

Another sign that today's incident was not happenstance is the statement by Hezbollah, Iran's Lebanese arm, which chose to respond with aggressive language: "The shooting down of the plane is the beginning of a new strategic stage that will restrict Israel's exploitation of Syrian airspace. The infringement of Syrian and Lebanese sovereignty will not be passed over in silence. The old formulae vis-a-vis Israel have been cancelled." In other words, the aim of the escalation is to limit Israeli air power in Syrian skies. Hezbollah media have been citing senior Syrian officials who have threatened that "the time of Israeli flights over Syria is over", but the official responses are much more muted, and even somewhat lachrymose, over the fact that Israel has disrupted media broadcasts in Syria.

And what of Putin, the main stakeholder in the region? Israel is aware of Russia's decisive influence in Syria, and America's absence, which is why Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, maintains close ties with Putin. Only ten days ago, the two men met, with Syria and Iran's infiltration into it at the top of their agenda. It is highly unlikely that Putin had advance information about Iran's intention of sending the drone, but it is almost certain that the Russian air defense officers who are training Syria's anti-aircraft forces knew about the firing of anti-aircraft missiles at the Israel Air Force plane. The Russian officers are stationed at most of Syria's anti-aircraft bases, where they are teaching the use of the air defense systems that Moscow has sold to Assad, and in some cases, in bases in the northwest of the country, they control these systems, for the defense of Russian forces stationed there. At one of these bases, Khmeimim Air Base, not far from the Mediterranean shore, is the Russian command bunker for its forces in Syria, which has a direct line of communication with the Israeli high command. This is necessary because of the activity of both the Israeli and Russian air forces over Syria. Israel has informed the Russians in advance of most of its strikes near Russian forces, and this presumably is what happened today, as most of the targets were Syrian air defense installations. It also appears that Russia did not warn Israel of the massive anti-aircraft fire that would be directed at its warplanes.

And so in this multi-sided game, the Iranian's set off the spark to try to change the equation; the Israelis responded once, and after that, following the downing of their aircraft, responded much more fiercely in order to retain control; the Syrians found themselves protecting Iranian interests and being hit by Israeli strikes; and everyone is waiting for the reaction of the Russians.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Zion at 70: Strategic Advantages with narrowing margins of security

Israel at 70: Strategic Advantages with Narrow Margins of Security

Israel’s current strategic situation is one of the most favorable the country has known in its 70 years of existence. Nonetheless, its margins of security are narrow, and it cannot rest on its laurels or rely on the IDF’s military power. There must be political action to promote the future of the State of Israel as a Jewish, democratic, secure, and moral state. Israel’s national security challenges are closely interrelated: to confront Iran’s ambitions to increase its regional influence, Israel must build partnerships with regional and international actors and engage in joint efforts. Progressing on the Palestinian issue and tabling the demand to cancel the JCPOA will allow Israel to promote the formation of a broad international coalition to curb Iran’s negative impact on the Middle East. At the same time, each challenge must be examined for what it is and for the severity of the threat it represents. It is only by seeking opportunities capable of promoting Israel at the next stage of its existence – toward its centennial – that a desired path is ensured. Maintaining ambiguity as to Israel’s goals for the future and postponing difficult decisions are liable to erode the nation’s current strategic advantages.

On January 29-31, 2018, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) held its 11th annual international conference, with the participation of policymakers, military personnel, media representatives, and security and political experts from Israel and around the world. As in past years, the week following the conference is an opportune time to summarize the major insights on Israel’s national security that emerged during the conference. Similar to last year, the general conclusion drawn from many of the discussions was that “Israel’s overall strategic balance is positive; it is viewed as a regional power with military superiority over its rivals and enemies.”

2017 was notable for closer relations between the White House and the Israeli government than in previous years, given that the Trump administration and the Israeli government see eye to eye about the regional challenges, both viewing Iran as the central regional problem. Jerusalem also maintains close strategic contact with Moscow; the pragmatic Sunni states consider Israel a potential friend more than a rival and a partner in blocking Iran’s efforts to attain broad regional influence; and on the Palestinian issue, the fault for the political deadlock is, unlike the past, not attributed solely to Israel.

However, there is no basis for assuming that the balance of risks and opportunities in Israel’s strategic environment, despite its clear positive features, will last indefinitely. Moreover, as IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot put it, Israel’s margins of security are narrow. In other words, despite the low probability of fundamental changes in the state’s strategic environment and security situation, Israel has little room to maneuver and act if and when a sudden change occurs in one of the arenas - in the north or the Palestinian arena. Therefore, it is necessary to prepare for a range of possible scenarios with maximal flexibility of response.

Of the array of issues discussed during the conference, several stood out. Seen together, they are the basic challenges Israel faces in the 70th year since its establishment.

The Iranian Nexus: From Nuclear Weapons to the Northern Arena

Israel’s most notable challenge at this time is the desire of the Islamic Republic of Iran to strengthen its influence over the Middle East by developing nuclear capabilities and long range missiles and by engaging in military, political, and other activity throughout the region. Because of President Trump’s vehement stance against Iran and profound criticism of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, implemented two years ago, chances have increased that the United States will withdraw from the agreement. This would not be desirable for Israel because, the flaws in the JCPOA notwithstanding, Israel at this point can only lose from annulment of the agreement. Exiting the JCPOA might put Iran back on track to accelerated nuclear development and also trigger a widespread regional chain reaction, including a confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah, as Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of the security cabinet, pointed out at the conference.

By contrast, the preferable option from Israel’s point of view, as noted more than once by INSS researchers, is to formulate parallel agreements between Israel and the United States and the European partners to the agreement, aimed at neutralizing any Iranian development of long range missiles and preventing Iran’s expansion of its influence in the region. It seems that the conditions for this have ripened, even among the Europeans. In this context, a dual strategy was suggested: continuing to combat the jihadist terrorism of the Islamic State, Salafi jihadist, and al-Qaeda, while simultaneously stopping Iran’s negative influence in the Middle East. This can occur under the leadership of the United States and with the participation of Europe, Israel, and the pragmatic Sunni Arab states. Enlisting the Europeans in this direction is possible if President Trump takes the possible annulment of the JCPOA off the table and if Europe recognizes Israel as the West’s spearhead in the battle with the radical phenomena of jihadist and state terrorism.

Iran’s actions in Syria and Lebanon, via its allies and proxies, represent a concrete threat to Israel. Indeed, the general sense, especially in the Israeli government, is that this is an acute threat on Israel’s strategic map, and that in recent years the northern arena (Syria and Lebanon combined) has become a single and inseparable arena, representing fertile ground for the entrenchment of the military presence of Iran and its proxies in the region. Hezbollah is Iran’s major expeditionary force. While mutual deterrence has been maintained since 2006, because the desire to maintain the calm has outweighed all other considerations that might have triggered a new outbreak of violence, it is clear that if Iran continues its efforts to expand and deepen its hold on Israel’s borders, an armed conflict will erupt at some point. For example, an Israeli attack to prevent the construction of infrastructure for missile building in Lebanon has far greater potential for escalation than attacks attributed to Israel carried out on Syrian territory.

Israel’s approach to the northern arena since 2011, when the Syrian civil war began, represents a calculated, balanced policy, involving close coordination between the political and military echelons. This policy may be credited in large part for the stability in the northern arena. Military activities in Syria attributed to Israel, security coordination between Israel and Russia, and the caution displayed regarding involvement in the fighting on the other side of the border have all proved to be correct policy. On the other hand, Israel’s policy of non-intervention has reduced its ability to affect the shaping of Syria’s future after the civil war ends. As a response to developments in this arena, Israel has in the past year focused efforts on preventing the consolidation of Iran and its proxies in Syria and the buildup of Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, as noted, this policy entails potential for escalation following a chain of actions and reactions, as well as the possibility for miscalculating the conduct of Iran, Hezbollah, and even Russia. In his speech at the conference, Minister Naftali Bennett, a member of the security cabinet, proposed expanding Israel’s range of action beyond Hezbollah and exacting a toll of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, i.e., the operative link between Tehran and Damascus and Beirut. According to Bennett, only determined action against Iran – “the head of the octopus” – can generate sufficient deterrence and curtail its long-armed reach into the region.

Although the current reference is primarily the northern arena – i.e., the Syrian and Lebanese fronts – and the next conflict has already been defined as “the first northern war,” much of the discourse about the Lebanese front in the “Third Lebanon War” focuses on Hezbollah, Iran’s main outpost in Lebanon. Both Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Minister Bennett articulated a clear line regarding a future conflict with Hezbollah, whereby Israel would make Lebanon, as the sovereign entity responsible for Hezbollah, pay the price. On this topic, conference participants heard two different US approaches. Ambassador David Satterfield, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, explained the State Department’s current Middle East policy of strengthening the Lebanese army, consequently also strengthening the Lebanese state, as a way of weakening Hezbollah. By contrast, Ambassador-at-Large and State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales claimed that the Lebanese army is a Hezbollah tool and that it is therefore counterproductive to strengthen it.

Another angle that surfaced in the context of a conflict in the northern arena is the Israeli home front’s capacity to withstand violence and continue uninterrupted functioning of the nation’s critical systems in case of a military confrontation. The home front is expected to be the main target of Hezbollah and its allies, armed by Iran with more accurate surface-to-surface missiles than before. However, the home front is currently not ready to handle the scope of anticipated damage.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Given the ongoing political deadlock, developments linked to this conflict have only deepened the differences of opinion between the sides and the distrust between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital transformed his administration into a biased broker, eliciting a scathing response from PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Expectations for an “ultimate deal” from the Trump administration that would resolve the conflict vanished due to the belief that at this point it is impossible to restart an effective political process. Any US proposal seen as close to Israel’s position would push the Palestinians against the wall and perhaps prompt them to opt for violence. On the other hand, in the absence of political hope, more recalcitrance by the Palestinians and an impulse to ascribe the blame to them are liable to spur those in the Israeli government advocating annexation to establish facts on the ground. Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan called for annexation of Judea and Samaria, beginning with Ma’ale Adumim. Therefore, it is not inconceivable that the Trump administration, in trying to recreate its image as an impartial mediator, would propose various gestures to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, just as he awarded Israel the gesture of recognizing Jerusalem as its capital while also deciding to reduce aid to UNRWA, the perpetuator of the Palestinian refugee issue. One idea aimed at breaking the political deadlock raised during the conference was to recognize a Palestinian state within provisional borders, as delineated in the second stage in the Roadmap.

Israeli government representatives who spoke at the conference presented a clear platform, whereby progress on the Palestinian issue is currently not on the agenda and that a significant step is pointless in the absence of a partner on the other side. President Abbas is viewed as a weak leader nearing the end of his career, particularly after a speech to the Palestinian Council in which he questioned the right of the Jewish state to exist. At the same time, it seems that the Israeli government feels it is possible to promote overt political connections with Sunni Arab states, as these are seeking cooperation with Israel to confront common challenges, especially Iran. According to this approach, Israel should leverage the interests of the Arab states to generate pressure on the Palestinians to return to negotiations without preconditions while at the same time promoting a regional agreement independent of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Significantly, guests from the Arab nations and experts in Arab affairs who participated in the conference rejected the idea that Israel can promote official relations with the Sunni states while bypassing the political process with the Palestinians.

At the same time, there a strong opinion emerged that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most serious problem Israel currently faces. This argument insists that it is necessary to take immediate steps to resolve the conflict, primarily to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic nation. Not only is there no – and can there be no – regional arrangement without progress in the Palestinian arena, but the decision not to decide brings Israel incrementally closer to a single bi-national state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. According to this opinion, separation from the Palestinians is imperative, if not by mutual consent then by independent steps that preserve Israel’s vital security needs. Any other option will erode Israel’s democratic, moral, and security foundations.

The conference sessions paid special attention to the Gaza Strip, now on the brink of collapse. The reconciliation efforts between Hamas and the PA have hit a dead end, and although neither side wants an escalation, the humanitarian crisis has its own dynamic; a descent into a military battle would be a fatal blow to Gaza. INSS recently conducted a study on the situation in the Gaza Strip, noting the critical need to promote a joint international and regional effort to reconstruct the Gaza Strip in exchange for preventing Hamas from making further gains.

A Look Inward

In recent years, Israel has begun to realize that the domestic arena is a vital component of Israel’s national security and that social cohesion is a touchstone for its resilience in times of external challenges. On this topic, the sense at the conference was that recently, the balance between the state’s Jewish nature and its democratic character has been undermined. Processes weakening the gatekeepers of democracy – including the Supreme Court, the media, the army, and the police – are underway and the risk that the glue holding Israeli society together will fail has intensified. Questions of religion versus state, the attitude to the other, the rights of minorities, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and other dilemmas are exposing deep-seated conflicts within society, to the point that the common denominator of the state, the foundation built when the state was established as an unwritten contract among its citizens, is in danger.

Also discussed in the context of the domestic arena, and not unrelated to the question of society’s cohesion, were the IDF and the challenges before it. The IDF maintains its regional advantage in force buildup and application, but there is a widening gap between the army’s values and the leading values of wide segments of the public - even though the army receives more public support than any other state institution in Israel. Today, the IDF is hard pressed to serve as the social melting pot it was during the first decades of Israel’s existence and must adapt to changes in society as well as to changes required by contemporary security doctrine and strategy. The IDF’s strategy paper written in 2015 and recently updated reflects both positive and negative aspects. The positive is that the IDF has defined for its own use the current conceptual framework in which it must operate and that must steer the army. On the other hand, the very fact that the document was articulated is indicative of a problematic situation and a lacuna: the political echelon has failed to define an orderly security doctrine and clear goals. This is nothing new in Israel; Israel does not have an organized, official national security concept. But the far reaching changes in the nation’s strategic environment demand that a national security concept be formulated at the level of the political echelon and then permeate the military echelon, rather than proceed from the military echelon to the political echelon,


Israel is proud of its achievements in its 70 years of existence. Its current strategic situation is one of the most favorable the country has known. Nonetheless, it cannot rest on its laurels or rely on the IDF’s military power. There must be political action to promote the future of the State of Israel as a Jewish, democratic, secure, and moral state. An analysis of the range of challenges discussed at the conference shows that they are closely interrelated: to confront Iran’s ambitions to increase its regional influence, Israel must build partnerships with regional and international actors and engage in joint efforts. Progressing on the Palestinian issue and tabling the demand to cancel the JCPOA will allow Israel to promote the formation of a broad international coalition to curb Iran’s negative impact on the Middle East, including pressure on it to stop the development of ballistic missiles and the distribution of advanced weapons to Iran’s proxies in the Middle East.

The thread linking all of these runs through Washington. Stopping Iran is impossible without action on the part of the United States. Similarly, renewing the political process with the Palestinians and mediation with the Sunni Arab states requires US involvement. Even when it comes to internal Israeli issues (the Western Wall agreement, for example) or questions affecting the Jewish people as a whole (such as the rise of anti-Semitism throughout the West) it is important to address Israel-US relations, and especially Israel’s relations with the American Jewish community. Some of the questions that hovered over Trump’s administration were lifted at the start of his second year in the White House, at least at the declarative level. However, it is still unclear how he will act in practice on any one of the issues of importance to Israel’s national security.

Despite Israel’s special relationship with the Unites States, and in certain areas, Israel’s dependence on the United States, there has been and there is still room for Israel to steer its own path to a better future. First and foremost, the time has come to discard the phrase “existential threat” – overused in the discourse on Israel’s challenges. Israel is a fact of life, a nation benefiting from solid strategic advantages. Therefore, each challenge must be examined for what it is and for the severity of the threat it represents, rather than in relation to the very existence of the state (this holds true even for the Iranian threat). Moreover, we must recognize that it is only by seeking opportunities capable of promoting Israel at the next stage of its existence – toward its centennial – that a desired path is ensured. Maintaining ambiguity as to Israel’s goals for the future and postponing difficult decisions are liable to erode the nation’s current strategic advantages.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Settler colonialism of Palestine . Who was here first?

The entrance of Caliph Umar (581-644) into Jerusalem, 19th century colored engraving, via Wikipedia

 The concept of “settler colonialism” has been applied with almost unique vehemence against Israel. But the fact that Jews are the indigenous population of the Southern Levant can be proved with ease. In contrast, historical and genealogical evidence shows Palestinians descend primarily from three primary groups: Muslim invaders, Arab immigrants, and local converts to Islam. The Muslim conquest of Byzantine Palestine in the 7th century CE is a textbook example of settler-colonialism, as is subsequent immigration, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries under the Ottoman and British Empires. The application of the concept to Jews and Zionism by Palestinians is both ironic and unhelpful.

One of the mainstays of the modern university is the idea of settler-colonialism. This argues that certain societies are birthed by settlers implanted in a foreign territory, either directly by or with the consent of an imperial power. These colonists then dominate and eradicate the indigenous population. They develop bellicose cultures that eliminate the natives from historical, literary, and other narratives. Primary examples often cited are the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and Rhodesia, and Israel.

The settler-colonial argument against Israel posits that Zionism was an imperial tool of Britain (or, alternatively, that Zionism manipulated the British Empire); that Jews represent an alien population implanted into Palestine to usurp the land and displace the people; and that Israel has subjected Palestinians to “genocide,” real, figurative, and cultural.

According to this argument, Israel’s “settler colonialism” is a “structure, not an event,” and is accompanied by a “legacy of foundational violence” that extends back to the First Zionist Congress in 1897 or even before. With Zionism thus imbued with two forms of ineradicable original sin, violent opposition to Israel is legitimized and any forms of compromise, even negotiation, are “misguided and disingenuous because ‘dialogue’ does not tackle the asymmetrical status quo.

But Middle Eastern history is not amenable to these formulations. Among the many concepts abused and perverted by the Palestinians, accusations of Israeli “genocide” rank the highest for blatant audacity, and for twinned calumny and odiousness. The settler-colonial idea deserves attention for three reasons: its comparatively recent adoption by Palestinians and their advocates; its broader currency in the academy; and its obvious and ironic falsity.

The idea of Jews as “settler-colonialists” is easily disproved. A wealth of evidence demonstrates that Jews are the indigenous population of the Southern Levant; historical and now genetic documentation places Jews there over 2,000 years ago, and there is indisputable evidence of continual residence of Jews in the region. Data showing the cultural and genetic continuity of local and global Jewish communities is equally ample. The evidence was so copious and so incontrovertible, even to historians of antiquity and writers of religious texts, some of whom were Judeophobes, that disconnecting Jews from the Southern Levant was simply not conceived of. Jews are the indigenous population.

As for imperial support, the Zionist movement began during the Ottoman Empire, which was at best diffident towards Jews and uncomfortable with the idea of Jewish sovereignty. For its part, the British Empire initially offered support in the form of the Balfour Declaration, but during its Mandatory rule (1920-48) support for Zionism vacillated. The construction of infrastructure aided the Yishuv immensely, but political support for Jewish immigration and development, as stipulated by the League of Nations mandate, waxed and waned until, as is well known, it was withdrawn on the eve of World War II. This is hardly “settler-colonialism.”

Ironically, the same cannot be said for the Palestinian Arabs. A recent analysis by Pinhas Inbari reviewed the history of Palestine (derived from the Roman term Palaestina, applied in 135 CE as a punishment to a Jewish revolt). Most notably, he examines the origin traditions of Palestinian tribes, which continue even today to see themselves as immigrants from other countries. Inbari’s review, along with many additional sources of information he did not address, demonstrates that modern Palestinians are, in fact, derived from two primary streams: converts from indigenous pre-modern Jews and Christians who submitted to Islam, and Arab tribes originating across the Middle East who migrated to the Southern Levant between late antiquity and the 1940s. The best documented episodes were the Islamic conquests of the 7th century and its aftermath, and the periods of the late Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate.

Even notable examples like Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who ludicrously claimed that “I am the proud son of the Canaanites who were there 5,500 years before Joshua bin Nun burned down the town of Jericho,” traces his real family lineage to the Huwaitat tribe, which migrated from Arabia to Jordan. The rare admission by Hamas minister Fathi Ḥammad that “half the Palestinians are Egyptians and the other half are Saudis” is more honest.

Echoing Inbari, it is not to be argued here that “there are no Palestinians” who thus do not deserve political rights, including self-rule and a state. To do so would be both logically and morally wrong. Palestinians have the right to define themselves as they see fit, and they must be negotiated with in good faith by Israelis. What Palestinians cannot claim, however, is that they are Palestine’s indigenous population and the Jews are settler-colonialists.

Palestinian genealogies that show their own tribes originating outside the Southern Levant are prima facie evidence of Arab settler-colonialism. And while narratives of the Arab conquests of Byzantine Palestine and North Africa cannot be taken at face value, they are pure ideological expressions of settler-colonialism. In 634-37 CE, Muslim armies commanded by the Caliph Umar conquered the entirety of the Levant before invading Armenia and Anatolia in 638 and Cyprus in 639.

The subsequent Islamization and Arabization of the Levant was a long and complex imperial process that entailed reorganizing the region into administrative provinces, instituting new social categories for the purposes of taxation and control, implanting settlers and reapportioning lands as estates, and encouraging conversion to Islam. Over the centuries, other settlers migrated and were intentionally implanted, including, in the 19th century alone, Egyptians fleeing from and imported by Muhammad Ali from the late 1820s to the 1840s, as well as Chechens, Circassians, and Turkmen relocated by the Ottoman Empire in the 1860s after its wars with Russia. Tribes of Bedouins, Algerians, Yemenis, and many others also immigrated during that century.

As for modern immigration, Inbari could well have pointed to the well-documented increases in Palestinian census numbers from 1922 to 1931, produced by illegal immigration spurred by the development of the region’s infrastructure and economy. One estimate sees some 37% of the increase in Palestinian population between 1922 and 1931, over 60,000 persons, having been the result of illegal immigration. Another study found that from 1932 to 1946, another 60,000 illegal male immigrants entered the country, with uncounted females imported as brides. These were in addition to the great influx of Arab workers from 1940 to 1945 in connection with the war effort.

To reiterate, these arguments do not devolve to arguing “a land without a people for a people without a land,” or that Ottoman Palestine was “empty” when the Zionist movement began. It was indeed populated, albeit unevenly, but those populations had immigrated into the land over the previous centuries, a process that accelerated precisely because of the Zionist movement and the British Mandate. Palestinian settler-colonialism took place, ironically, under the aegis of both a Muslim and a Christian empire.

Finally, there is the matter of a separate Palestinian ethno-national consciousness and its relationship to settler-colonialism. Claims to find a separate Palestinian ethnic identity as far back as the 17th century are unpersuasive. Instead, the idea developed as an elite concept in the years immediately before and especially after World War I, vying with far deeper and more resilient tribal and religious identities. The nationalization of the masses occurred gradually over the next few decades, propelled in part by tragedies largely foisted on them by their leaders, notably the “Arab Revolt” of 1936-39, the rejection of partition in 1947, the Israeli War of Independence of 1948-49, and the subsequent, rather local, dispersal of refugees into the 1950s. Palestinian nationalism and identity are largely reactive and secondary, pointing to the fact that settler-colonial identity was primarily tribal and religious, the latter imperial by definition.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, a mythology of the “timeless” Palestinians took root. During the earlier period, this was a European Orientalist trope: the Palestinians as living “fossils” who reflected the lifeways of the Bible. It was later adopted for strategic reasons by the Palestinians themselves as a political and cultural retort to the Zionist return to the land. That usage was perhaps understandable, if ironic; but it reaches a reductio ad absurdum in Erekat’s claim to have had Upper Paleolithic ancestors.

It is, then, the Palestinians who are the settler-colonialists, not the Jews or even the Zionists. Does this realization change anything? Does removing a term from the rejectionist toolbox bring the cause of negotiation and peace any closer? This seems unlikely. But in the longer term, facing certain truths will be necessary for Palestinians and Israelis alike. One is that rejection of Israel, at its core, is not a function of Palestinian nationalism and local identity but Islamic religious opposition to Jewish autonomy and sovereignty. Another is that tendentious categories like “settler-colonialism,” which ironically undermine Palestinian claims to indigenous status, should be dispensed with in favor of honest appraisals of history.